For longer than most people can remember, the San Patong Buffalo Market, twenty-three kilometres south of Chiang Mai on route 108, has seen famers and traders tethering their livestock to wooden posts every Saturday at five a.m. These days the market is an enormous affair, spreading out on either side of the road, and while the stalls on the left are basically a great big outdoor clothing mall, those on the right are still devoted to the needs of the local community, however diverse those needs are.

The first thing that strikes me as I cross the busy road aren’t the big beasts that give San Patong Buffalo Market its name but the small grubby glass bottles stacked in rows in which gloriously coloured Siamese fighting fish slowly circle, changing direction with a flick of their beautifully-hued tails. As gorgeous as some of these tails might be, I’m told by a young man inspecting them with the eye of an aficionado that you need to avoid those who have a tail drifting behind them like a diva’s feather boa, they’ll get short-shrift from the nippy little devils with the shorter stern.

Siamese fighting fish at San Patong Buffalo MarketI wander through the narrow spaces between the canopied stands: gaudy fake flowers courtesy of Technicolor, traditional health remedies, straw hats, agricultural equipment of every size suitable for plant pot to rice field, brightly coloured rubber boots for kids and adults, mock leopard-skin knickers, huge apples in bags of five for 70 baht. It’s all there. Plenty of juice stalls and coffee stalls and no shortage of food stalls to keep the energy levels up.

Heading to the back where the buffalos and cows are tethered, I spot a pair of varnished half-coconut shells glued to a short piece of wood that look a deviants stiff bra until it’s explained to me that it’s the perfect thing to rest your head on if you have neck problems. I have, but don’t see me getting much kip with my neck lying between two painfully hard coconut shells.

Onward through the lanes as the crow of cockerels harshens the air until I arrive at an area of round bamboo cages, their garish occupants strutting around like tin-pot generals in kitschly over-ornamented uniforms. In a circle of denim-covered legs a couple of fighting cocks have a momentary stand-off before hurling themselves at each other in a flurry of wings and feet. Not being armed with the vicious spurs that are found in more secretive cock fights, most of the damage seems to be to their pride rather than to their body.

Buffalo for sale at San Patong Buffalo Market











The buffalo has historically played an important role in Thai agriculture and despite their sometimes huge curved horns is usually a very placid animal, with farm kids often learning to ride them with legs spread wide over a broad back almost before they can walk. Attaining weights up to six-hundred kilos by the time they are fully grown they still fulfil their traditional roll of ploughing, their strong flat hooves perfectly designed for them to walk through the sticky mud of rice fields hour after hour.

Despite its name, most of the beasts on sale at the San Patong Buffalo Market are cattle, some individually, some with a calf or two. Traders barter for younger animals for fattening and future re-sale or older ones for meat, and woe betide anyone who is foolish enough to ask how old the animal is. You’ve just shown your lack of experience so be prepared to be taken for a ride – and won’t be on the animal’s back! Like checking the health of a horse, the cow’s teeth are given a good look at but a fair indication of the animal’s quality for consumption is the yellow vet’s tag pinned through the ear, certification from the slaughterhouse.

As the morning drifts on it’s time to eat. A brief glance at a stall selling cooked insects and I move on. I’ve tried various species before and not been particularly impressed; cricket, which I dislike because their crispy fried legs get stuck between my teeth, silk worm has a pulpy texture that I find distasteful, and a large bug called a mengda, which translates into ‘pimp’ in English, so called because it follows the female around.


I stop at vegan hades, a rustic kitchen whose menu is made up entirely of innards and gizzards. Once used raw for the traditional spicy mince northern dish, larb, (the Thai version of steak tartare with the added bonus of a variety of despicable Asian bacteria and toxins, and about as far removed as you can get from the anodyne dish served in many restaurants these days) they are now usually cooked, either in stews or grilled, although the dark paste fermenting in an aluminium pan looks a bit suspect. On the battered old charcoal grill, curls, slabs and misshapes of pigs’ guts are cooked, including a thick tube that my Thai friend , Kai, describes simply as ‘pig’s dick’, although I was always under the impression that a pig’s penis was corkscrew-shaped.

Two large aluminium bowls are simmering away, one the colour of rich brown gravy with chillies, kafir lime leaves and an assortment of things I try not to look too closely at; tom som, which turns out to be a soup of chickens’ innards including tiny hearts and a handful of miniscule un-formed eggs. I’m told the abundance of spices are to cover the smell and flavour of the animal ingredients. The lady cook persuades me to sample it, plus a small bowl of aom curry, something to do with beef but I really don’t want to pursue the ingredients any further than that. Both are reasonably tasty in a thick, spicy sort of way and as the best way to jump off a height into water is to hold your nose, the best way to eat at any of these stalls is to close your eyes and not look at what’s on the spoon.

While I’m savouring these rustic delicacies a customer extols the delights and benefits of the ‘pig’s dick’ so I finally give in and accept a slither. About as chewy and tasteless as anything I’ve ever put in my mouth. I ask Kai to find out what the Thai name is. When the uproarious laughter finally settles it seems that it wasn’t pig’s dick after all, simply the pig’s large intestine, but the staff and customers thought it was hilarious that this farang would eat pig’s penis, even just to sample local gastronomy. Too late, I’d swallowed it by then.


(You can read an extended version of the ‘weird food’ element of this story in Turning the Other Cheek)


Chiang Mai uncovered magazine